Tag Archives: books

MY BOOKS

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THE QUEEN OF JASMINE COUNTRY

The Queen of Jasmine Country_Cover Spread

Shortlisted for The Hindu Prize 2019 [Fiction]

 

Longlisted for The JCB Prize for Literature 2019

 

Longlisted for the Mathrubhumi Book of the Year Award 2020

 

More about this book, including interviews, reviews and excerpts.

 

THE ALTAR OF THE ONLY WORLD

The Altar of the Only World-15

 

More about this book, including interviews, reviews and excerpts.

 

THE HIGH PRIESTESS NEVER MARRIES

The High Priestess Never Marries

Strung like luminous pearls, The High Priestess Never Marries is a collection of evocatively written short stories that feature women who seem suspended between relationships, living in moments fraught with desire and despair. Set in current day Chennai, these unnamed female protagonists cherish their independence, even within the bounds of relationships, and find their inner voices through an exploration of sensuality and choice. These are women who have accepted their many loves, their imperfect selves, and their fractured lives. In appreciation of the portrayal of single women in strong roles who cherish their independence and imperfection, The High Priestess Never Marries is awarded the South Asia Laadli Media and Advertising Award for Gender Sensitivity 2015-2016.” – Award Citation

 

Winner of the LAADLI South Asia Media & Advertising Awards for Gender Sensitivity [Best Book – Fiction]

 

Shortlisted for the Tata Literature Live! First Book Award for Fiction

 

Longlisted for the Atta Galatta-Bangalore Literature Festival Book Prize 2017

 

More about this book, including interviews, reviews and excerpts.

 

THE AMMUCHI PUCHI

Ammuchi Puchi

Honourable Mention for a Neev Children’s Book Award 2019

 

Shortlisted for a Peek-A-Book Children’s Choice Award 2018

 

Nominated for Best Writer Of The Year at the Comic Con India Awards 2019

 

More about this book, including interviews, reviews and excerpts.

 

WITCHCRAFT

Sharanya Manivannan - Witchcraft

“Sensuous and spiritual, delicate and dangerous and as full as the moon reflected in a knife.” – Ng Yi-Sheng

 

‘Bloody, sexy, beguiling as in a dance with veils.” – from the foreword by Indran Amirthanayagam

 

(Out of print)

The Venus Flytrap: Enough of Enid Blyton

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The UK’s Royal Mint has heeded the caution of its advisory committee and decided against issuing a commemorative coin to coincide with the 50th death anniversary of Enid Blyton, whose books have been a part of the childhoods of several generations of readers. The caution was because a backlash was feared; it’s difficult to miss the explicit racism (some critics allege sexism and homophobia too) in those books.

Those who think the Royal Mint’s decision was excessive argue that social norms keep changing, and that it isn’t fair to judge the people of the past by what is politically correct in the present. This would be a reasonable argument, since dead people don’t have the benefit of learning and evolving their viewpoints as the living do, except that Blyton was criticised in her own time for work which was already perceived as racist, even receiving a publisher rejection for a book long after she had established her career. What’s more evident here is not Blyton’s bigotry, which may or may not have been on par with her surroundings, but the bigotry of her defenders today, who are willing to overlook the damage that honouring a prejudiced person and their work can have.

Blyton died in 1968, and as far as I’m aware is not an author whose work has been kept in circulation through its inclusion in academic syllabi. Her books continue to be purchased by parents and libraries, with over 2 million copies reportedly sold in the last 5 years. This is not in itself a problem; no one with a respect for literature knocks a reading habit, wherever it springs from. But what is worrying is the context. A 2017 study by the Arts Council England discovered that just 1% of all children’s books published in the UK that year featured a main character of a minority ethnicity, despite nearly 33% of schoolchildren being from non-white backgrounds. When the literature being produced does not sufficiently reflect modern society, the continuing popularity of older work with problematic values is a matter of concern.

As it happens, assuming the ACE statistic could have applied to the year prior too, one of my own books – released in the UK in 2016 by Lantana Publishing, which was founded to produce culturally diverse children’s books – would have counted. When it comes to situations like this, one longs to not be among the exception. But when that book, The Ammuchi Puchi, was republished in India last year, it entered a vibrant, growing world of incredibly exciting work for all ages which normalises and celebrates darker skin tones, local names and environments, splashes of mother-tongues, folklore, indigenous artforms, progressive viewpoints, unusual storylines and more. Contemporary, original children’s literature is thriving here.

Any book-buying parent or educational facilitator in India who is still exclusively reaching for Enid Blytons or even Amar Chitra Kathas (with their colourist portrayals, among other uncomfortable things) out of sentimentality is depriving the reading child of a treasure trove. Give them your old favourites too; but know that they will be far more enriched by newer books, the kind we didn’t have when we were growing up.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 5th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Tacking The Tsundoku Pile

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Between the beginning of May and the end of July, I finished reading 37 books. These comprised of: 18 novels, 3 graphic novels, 5 books of poetry, 3 short story collections, 4 picture-books for all ages, and 4 works of non-fiction.

I hadn’t been held hostage in a library. I hadn’t become unemployed; in fact, my overall workload had increased during this period. I hadn’t had a windfall and splurged it; with few exceptions, most of the books were from my splendid tsundoku collection (the Japanese term for purchasing books and not reading them, allowing the to-be-read pile to become a heap, then several).

The having of books – or if one cannot own them, the solace of wandering the stacks at a library or a good bookstore – is one kind of pleasure and self-care activity. Reading them is a completely separate kind. My book binge was deliberate. It was to limit my social media usage, both so I would spend my time better and because I was increasingly noticing how it drained more than just my phone battery. Studies show how social media usage can negatively affect mental health, as well as physical components like sleep, something most users know from experience.

Many wonder how to rekindle (pun intended) their earlier interest in reading. Innumerable suggestions exist: take public transport and read on your commute, carry literature at all times so you can read during waiting periods through the day, commit to an hour before bedtime or wake earlier and do it before even brushing your teeth. Notice how every one of these suggestions ultimately requires the same thing: a shift in unrelated habits. The thing you need to tweak to bring reading back doesn’t have to do with books at all. Rather than deactivate my apps, I simply decided to do more of something else, and this made me see how little I actually need them.

These days, I work at a desk beside a well-earned wall of books, and I hope I’ll always remember being giddy with joy and surprise on the night I finally set it all up, when it was like I was staring at my childhood ambitions come true. “Now I am a Lady of Letters,” I thought, grandly. “An L. O. L.”

And that’s exactly why I plan to read fewer books this month. The downside to reading so voraciously was that I’d left myself little time to write. After three months of gobbling through pages like a silverfish, I confronted the fact that my book binge was also an exercise in procrastination.

Still, I understood this only through the reset I experienced thanks to it. I had gained greater clarity on my goals, and become more mindful about how I utilise or fritter my time. I didn’t have as many low moods. My sense of self was richer, less reactive to the vagaries of the fickle hive mind. Not least, I experienced the sheer pleasure that comes from immersion, when you don’t shift your attention just because of one slow-moving passage. Ultimately, I found that the many worlds of fiction held far less artifice than the online world.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 8th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: How Book Piracy Kills Book Culture

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This question is on Quora: “Where can I download the book The Queen of Jasmine Country?” As the author of the said novel, I’m uniquely qualified to respond. Not about where to illegally get a free digital copy of my book, but about what happens when you do.

Writers may be creatives, but publishing is a revenue-based corporate industry. Publishers invest in authors (from accepting their submissions to allocating a promotion budget) based on how their work is projected to fare on the market, and then does. If book piracy undercuts profits, it significantly impacts the author’s career, and prospects for future books in its genre.

You may think it’s just one little download – but just like “one vote” or “one plastic straw”, you’re not the only one. Collectively, that’s a lot of lost sales. To be considered a bestseller in India, a literary fiction book in English only needs to sell around 2000 copies. The author makes just 8%-10% on royalties. Once, I bought a box of sweets for former colleagues when I signed a book contract. As I stood at the counter, I calculated that in order to pay for it from my royalties, every single person in that mid-size agency would have to buy a copy. I think three did.

Which brings us to day jobs and side gigs. Here’s the secret: if they don’t come from or marry into wealth, authors in India earn their incomes from something other than their books. Mine is from content writing, ghostwriting and journalism. Tell me: if I’m hustling constantly for paid work, growing disillusioned because making literature is so financially unviable, how am I going to find the time and headspace to write more? It’s a practical question.

Even bestselling commercial fiction writer Durjoy Datta has gone on the record to say, “You cannot expect to pay rent or even the electricity bill with a writing income.” Imagine the situation for lit-fic or poetry.

Libraries and piracy are simply not the same; it’s not classist to oppose the latter. With a library membership, you contribute to and participate in reading culture in a meaningful way, keeping books in circulation, supporting spaces in which they are sacred, and making them accessible in a fair way. Book piracy, on the contrary, has detrimental effects on this culture. It actively limits which books enter the market.

Don’t have a good library close to you? Look harder. Chennai, for instance, has: Madras Literary Society, Connemara Library, Anna Centenary Library, British Council and American Consulate Libraries, Roja Muthiah Research Library – and these are just the major ones. You can also access free online collections, such as Open Library, which work in exactly the same way.

There are only a few cases in which the downloading of illegal e-books is marginally acceptable, such as for prohibitively expensive academic texts, out of print works and banned books. But for a new book available for the price of a designer coffee, and deeply discounted through online retailers? Why would you hurt the author that way? If you want more books by them in future, buy (or borrow) the ones they’ve already written.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on March 14th 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Selected Book Reviews/Interviews (2019/2020)

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On Githa Hariharan’s i have become the tide, in The Hindu Business Line.

On Annie Ali Khan’s Sita Under The Crescent Moon, in OPEN.

On Lindsay Pollock and Benjamin Dix’s Vanni, in OPEN.

Interview with Urvashi Bahugana, on poetry and memoir, in The Bombay Literary Magazine.

A long essay on civil war literature set in Sri Lanka, and its relevance after the Easter 2019 bombings, in The Caravan.

THE QUEEN OF JASMINE COUNTRY

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I am delighted to announce the publication of my fifth book and first novel, The Queen of Jasmine Country, in October 2018 by HarperCollins India. A press release from HarperCollins India contains further details.

My book is now in bookstores all over the Indian subcontinent, and online on Amazon India and other retailers.

Please see below the image for links to selected interviews, reviews and excerpts.

The Queen of Jasmine Country_Cover Spread

“A rare and incandescent book”. – Trisha Gupta in India Today

 “Among contemporary Indian writers in English, there aren’t many who can write fiction as if it were poetry and do as good a job of it as Sharanya Manivannan.” – Tanuj Solanki in Scroll

“Manivannan’s writing is honest, beautiful and compassionate. Her recreation of 7th-century Tamil society is believable, and her storytelling, hypnotic. Her poetic prose serves as a delightful and sensual channel for Andal’s life, love and art. The poet-goddess could not have picked a better medium.” – Urmi Chanda-Vaz in The Hindu Business Line

“Manivannan weaves an impressive story that feels new while drawing from the familiar.” – Krupa Ge in Firstpost

“Kodhai’s every metaphor, every daydream is laced with the imagery of the earth, both local and distant. In Manivannan’s characteristically lyrical style, the prose is sensual and tactile. She mines the tropes within Andal’s own writing to create Kodhai’s unique voice which combines storytelling and poetry.” – Urvashi Bahuguna in Scroll

“The Queen of Jasmine Country celebrates both love and womanhood like never before.” – Soumyabrata Gupta in Deccan Chronicle / The Asian Age

“The quality of sensuality and earthiness in Manivannan’s writing goes right to the reader’s bones, and I have had to stop to breathe, to stay with and feel the feelings rather than rush on with the reading.” – Kiranjeet Chaturvedi, Birdsong & Beyond

“Remarkable… A torch song of both love, and freedom.” – Shreya Ila Anasuya in Verve

“Long after you have finished the little book, the warmth of Manivannan’s words and the intricately imagined world of Kodhai will continue to hum in your head.” – Devapriya Roy in ScoopWhoop

“There’s much lush lyricism here, born out of the natural beauty of Kodhai’s small world, and one wonders if this is indeed the poet-saint herself writing about her life.” – Pooja Pillai in The Indian Express

[A] lyrical fable seeped in strong, indigenous, sensual prose” – Resh Susan in Huffington Post 

“Exquisite prose and the journey of a sublimely emancipated girl whose ‘words will themselves become prayers’… [A] garland of a book.”– Lisa Rani Ray

“This book was just so beautiful! So, so damn beautiful!”  Booxoul 

“A compelling testament on art, beauty, poetry and magic in prose that is way out of the normal league. This is legend.” – Hey DJ – Spin That Wheel

“I’m in love with each and every page of this book.” – Ronak R. Shah

“I found myself immersed in the feel of the words: there is so much power and depth in the words strung together, like a garland, each word chosen with care and which are full of depth and rich meaning.” — Chitra Ahanthem in Books And Conversations

“[TheQueen of Jasmine Country shows you the power of language when poets pen down a novel, this is where the play of language and the elegance of poetry comes into play.” – Sahil Pradhan in A hindu’s view

“These words that Sharanya uses to describe what Kodhai (who later goes on to become Andal) felt in the book, might as well describe Sharanya’s own relationship with words. She weaves them majestically like they weave silk threads, delicately soft, yet strong, firm and unbreakable.” – Anushree K in Women’s Web

“It was like a thunderstorm of a love affair that leaves no scar yet lingers forever in who you become because of it.” – from an interview by Soumyabrata Gupta in Deccan Chronicle

“So who was she really – this young woman from over a thousand years ago? What filled her nights and days, and led her to write such intense, vivid poetry? This is what my novel is about – going beyond her legend, and reading between her own lines.” – from an interview by Rochana Mohan in The New Indian Express

“If you strip the fancy alangaram, the gem-encrusted hagiography, and see what’s really there – a young woman so desperate for love that she fasts and prays for it – I think you’ll see her as she came to me, too.” – from an interview by Kiran Manral in SheThePeople

“So Kodhai dreaming of the mythical landscape of Ayarpadi gives birth to another rendition of herself within that dream, committed to permanence in her poetry; and then there was me here in the 21st century spending my nights and days imagining Puduvai, conjuring up a whole life. Dreaming of the dreamer, who dreamt within my dream of her.” – from an interview by Nidhi Verma in Platform Magazine

“It was not the goddess Andal who came to me as a muse but a teenager named Kodhai, who lived in the 9th century and wrote incandescent and anguished poems, never knowing what would eventually become of them.” – from an interview by Varsha Naik in Free Press Journal

“Kodhai certainly knew the vision of those peaks. It is easy to imagine her: walking deeper into the forest, lifting her hems as she crossed small streams, stopping for elephant traffic, while the magnolia she tucked into her ear wilts through the course of the day. I lift my eyes to the mountains and drink in the certainty that what I see is very close to what she too must have seen.” – a travelogue in The Punch Magazine

“I felt as though a peacock had suddenly swept in from a place of camouflage, tail unfolded, and rearranged the world with its resplendence.” – an excerpt in Scroll

“I grew along with the fence of sugarcane. My teeth, when they came in, grew strong on the flesh of those stalks.” – an excerpt in Harper Broadcast

THE AMMUCHI PUCHI – Indian Subcontinental Edition

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It was very, very special for me to have The Ammuchi Puchi – originally published in the UK by Lantana Publishing – be released in an Indian subcontinental edition in May 2018 by Puffin India. I’d always hoped that my book would be easily available to children here.

It is now in bookstores all over the Indian subcontinent, and online on Amazon India and other retailers.

Please see below the image for selected reviews and interviews.

Ammuchi Puchi.jpg

“”A powerful story about grief and loss…a wonderful reminder about the magic of imagination.” – Bijal Vachharajani in The Hindu

“”The language of grief and loss is universal. It can be as tender as you can make it. Or it can be lacerating. Both are heartwrenching. Manivannan chose tender.” – Shikhandin in Scroll

“The prose of the book is perfect for children, and will teach them the important lessons of: exploring their creativity, handling grief and the need for learning a variety of life skills from grandparents.” – Mithila Reviews

“Aa gorgeously illustrated tale of children dealing with the death of a beloved grandmother.” – The Hindu

“How to talk to your children about losing a grandparent” – Momspresso

Reviews, interviews and other press for the UK edition here.

The Venus Flytrap: Ondaatje’s Bibliography

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A few months before I finished school, due to a set of circumstances that don’t lend themselves to a brief explanation, my siblings and I stayed for several days at the home of a friend of our mother’s. I was 15. The house had what I recognise in retrospect was probably a mostly decorative library, but it contained real books, and I spent hours perusing them. Some lines from a novel I found then remain indelible to me, and they return now to describe my chance discovery of it: “Who lays the crumbs of food that tempt you? Toward a person you never considered. A dream. Then later another series of dreams.” I don’t know what made me open Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, what tempted me toward what was an unusual choice for my reading tastes back then, but I do know that it permanently changed those tastes – and me. That was a book that raised me. I became an adult as I turned its pages, emerging in new skin, freshly initiated, as I closed it.

In the past few weeks, I’ve been slowly reading Ondaatje’s latest novel, Warlight. Like any Ondaatje after my first one, I came to it not with a sense of excitement but a sense of trust. Some books, and some bodies of work, are simply reliable that way. The time you spend with them is like seeing someone you share a long affinity with – sometimes you will speak of nothing special, but the point is that it is never transactional. Something caught my eye this time: on the page with the list of the author’s prior works, each title had a year in brackets after it. I’d read many of them, but what I’d never clocked was their chronology. Of Ondaatje’s 20 books, his first five – published between 1967 and 1976 – were obscure poetry collections. His life didn’t begin with his fame, and neither do decades of fame sum up his life.

Pondering that list gave me much for one of my current preoccupations: the deeply discursive questions of interior lives, and how, say, the volume of 20 books stands against every other method in which to measure 75 years of life. It reminded me of something my father innocently said when I signed a book contract once, for a work that wouldn’t be released for over a year later: “But what will the publishers do until then?” The same holds for what people imagine the author does, and this is true of everyone whose work requires a public presence. I nuzzle these contemplations often, applying them gently to everyone I encounter. This is bridge-work, for it helps me not only parse the lacuna between what is perceived of me and the true fabric of my days, but to also engage more meaningfully in those encounters.

These lines from Warlight say it all: “I could have entered and roamed within the story of their marriage as easily as I might have within the lives of others who had surrounded me in my youth, who were part of my self-portrait, composed from the way they had caught glimpses of me.”

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 19th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Poison In The Pages

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Researchers at the University of Southern Denmark have found three books in its library, dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, painted in poison. Bookbinders of that time often reinforced books by using manuscript fragments, and archivists over the years have discovered precious texts among the same. Unable to read the words therein due to a layer of green pigment, the researchers sent the books for micro-XRF analysis. The pigment contained arsenic.

But this will come as no surprise to history and trivia buffs. It was fashionable in Europe then to wear poison, use it in interior décor, and make art with it. The pigment Scheele’s Green, also known as Paris Green, contained arsenic. Its beautiful colour was found in the fabric of ball gowns and cravats, and the works of Cezanne and Monet, among other painters. It was commonly used in wallpaper, and not just in affluent homes; whole families often died mysteriously after a décor makeover, and one suspected reason for Napoleon’s demise was that the walls of his exile home contained it. And arsenic-laced pigment was used both for aestheticizing books, as well as an insecticide in the binding. This toxic substance was widely appreciated just because it could make things pretty.

Strangely enough, at around the same time, a concealed poison caused much alarm and was linked to hundreds of murders in Italy. Known as Acqua Tofana, it was believed to be composed principally of arsenic, although post-mortems didn’t always reveal this substance. It took its name from the apothecary believed to be its manufacturer, Giulia Tofana. With a few trusted women, including Hyeronyma Spara who either was or pretended to be a sorceress, she created a poison that was also sold exclusively to women. It would either be packaged as a compact, and could be openly kept on a dresser alongside other cosmetics, or in a vial with the brand Manna di San Nicola, under guise of being a holy oil from the tomb of St. Nicholas of Bari (also known as Santa Claus).

Mozart claimed Acqua Tofana caused his death, and the stories around it are so fascinating that I hope a brilliant novelist pursues them. Among the rumours half-sceptically accepted as history is that there was a high demographic of young Italian widows for decades. That their deceased spouses were often much older was seen as a less likely possibility than that they’d introduced a tasteless, colourless, mysterious blend into their food.

How much of the legend around Acqua Tofana and its sisterhood of makers and clientele is based on the distrust of women? What it brings to mind is the ancient Indian legend of the vishkanya, women whose bodies had been trained from birth, through the gradual imbibing of poisons in small doses, to themselves become lethal. Physical contact with them could kill, and vishkanyas were raised for this purpose alone. Of course, they served whoever raised them. But imagine they indeed existed, and broke away, and formed a feminist legion. I don’t want to touch a book with arsenic in its binding. But I’d love to read one with such poisons and intrigues in its pages.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on July 12th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

~ THE ALTAR OF THE ONLY WORLD ~

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Sita in a forest, loved and left behind, looks towards the night sky and sees Lucifer’s fall from grace. Inanna enters the underworld, holding her heart before her like a torch. It is not easy to bear the weight of light; wilderness takes time to turn into sanctuary. These are poems of exile, resurrection, impossible love, lasting redemption – and above all else, the many meanings of grace.

“Sharanya’s poems are, in her own phrase, a form of phosphorescence – glowing in darkness, simmering with wonder, mythic in resonance, boldly embodied, hence surprisingly spiritful, even spiritual in the finest sense of the word. They are also skeptical and reflective, tempering and enhancing the glowing flame. Riptides of Tamil hide beneath or within her honed English, for those who can hear and see.” – David Shulman.

Selected reviews, interviews & articles

“Sharanya Manivannan’s poems in The Altar of the Only World are resplendent, locking you up in their hallucinatory visions.” – Karthik Shankar, OPEN Magazine

“This is a collection that you would want to own, for its exquisite imagery, for the raw passion, and most of all for the deep emotions it will evoke in you.” – The Greedy Reader

“It doesn’t matter in the end who abandoned you – it only matters who you make of yourself in the afterlife of that love.” – Scroll (interview with Nikita Deshpande)

“You can see Venus in the sky with the naked eye some nights of the year, and she sometimes hovers by her lover, Mars, and our grandmother, the moon. There’s the traditional reading of the planet as the goddess of love, but you chase her a little more and you are unsurprised to find that she is also the goddess of war, as Inanna. And exiled from heaven, as Lucifer the morning star is. I love that complexity because it gave me so much for my poetry. I love that what has survived through the ages is a less austere kind of imagination, one that embraced the contradictory. We need more of that today.” New, Fractured Light (interview)

“Heartbreak is also a palimpsest. Each time afterwards, one retraces that journey. It’s a shadow under the fresh pain. It doesn’t always sting or throb, but it’s there.” The Wire (interview with Shreya Ila Anasuya)

“The book was born in the chthonic, and in the search for light in all its meanings — as illumination, as blitheness, as clarity. Lucifer, whose name means light-bearer, brought the light, as did Inanna, who went to the underworld to confront her shadow. What I discovered was that these were not contradictions. Stars fill this book. The sun is among them, and the one Sita thinks of often, having married into, and been banished from its dynasty. Fire, too, is a repeated motif. We have walked through fire, and the myths help us live with trauma, to accept the knowledge of how we became salamandrine.” The Hindu Business Line (interview with Urvashi Bahuguna)

 

Purchase online

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Amazon.com

 

The Venus Flytrap: Desires Unmet

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In Balli Kaur Jaswal’s novel, Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows, a group of mostly illiterate older women share and write down sexual fantasies and revelations with one another in a gurudwara classroom, while those in charge believe the old ladies are actually learning English. In Alankrita Shrivastava’s film, Lipstick Under My Burqa, four neighbours with significantly varied lifestyles conduct the shine-and-subterfuge that so many women in conservative places like India do. In secret, they work, party, sing, join protests, read erotica, conduct affairs – slipping on and off masks (or more literally, articles of clothing, be they burqas or swimsuits) that allow them to move between their true and ordained selves.

In both cases – the book, set in suburban London, and the film, set in Bhopal – the women’s solidarity with one another is a natural falling-together, an effect of proximity and circumstance. They have not been influenced by rhetoric, or raised with exposure to it; they have been moved only by logic and desire, despite how incompatible the two may seem. Indeed, I can see both groups together, crossover-style: among them, the resourceful Shireen who climbs the ladder of a sales career without her husband’s knowledge, the elderly Arvinder who reveals a memory disguised as a story, the wilful student Rehana who articulates rebellion in front of the sudden spotlight of a camera, the grieving Kulwinder who finds that life can still hold pleasure.

It was by coincidence that I watched Lipstick Under My Burqa on one of the days when I was also reading Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows. They complemented each other so well, such that the middle-aged, widowed character of Usha in the film, played by Ratna Pathak, would have found herself at ease in the English gurudwara. Like the migrant widows, she is regarded as a non-sexual being. In truth, they are anything but – something which is routinely unacknowledged, either in fiction or in life. It was only extraordinary to see her portrayed in Indian cinema, for the many Ushas around us are dismissed daily, their desire seen alternately as non-existent, humourous or shameful.

Lipstick Under My Burqa left me saddened for hours afterwards. Was this the movie that had caused such a controversy with the censor board (not to mention the creation of that odd little phrase – “lady-oriented”)? There’s a little bit of sex, sure – but more vividly, there’s rape. Marital rape, to be precise, which does not legally exist in India. And humiliation, heartache and helplessness. It’s a film about women’s fantasies, yes – but more pertinently, it’s a film about women’s realities. About need and nature and how both are crushed by force. Nothing titillating about that.

It’s a film about fulfilled desire only as a matter of luck, and sexual repression or frustration as demands. I won’t say more, because I shouldn’t give away what happens in this poignant and disturbing film. But I will say this: if, like me, you are filled with sorrow afterward, turn to the surprisingly uplifting Erotic Stories For Punjabi Widows as a chaser. I’m grateful I was consuming both pieces of art at once. Book and film, too, fell together in quiet solidarity.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on September 7th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: If Money Isn’t Found In Books…

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When I took a workplace sabbatical to become a consultant, one of the first things I researched was whether going many days at a time without wearing a bra causes sagging. I am happy to tell you that Google told me the opposite is true, but the reason I can enjoy this at all is because of another, far greater, luxury: to work largely out of home, at least for long as I can manage it. Lest you think I’m sitting in some posh veranda, blowing bubbles, bra-lessly contemplating Deep Thoughts and quilling Poems with a peacock feather – when I say working out of home, I still mean working for other people, writing or editing a variety of things for them so that they, in turn, can write me cheques. “Other work”, you see, is what all artists who don’t have inheritances, spouses with sizable incomes or a steady stream of foreign commissions or royalties must do. And that is the vast majority of us.

But don’t we make pots of money from our books, you ask? There are outliers in commercial fiction and selected non-fiction (like celebrity memoirs), but literary work sells very poorly in India. The agent Kanishka Gupta has written extensively about these nitty-gritties, but to break it down for you: the average author makes about 10% on the cover price of each sold book. I remember buying a box of sweets for my former office, a mid-sized advertising agency, when I signed a publishing contract and thinking – only if every single colleague bought a copy of my book would I make enough in royalties to cover the cost of that treat.

Like me, many authors work in allied fields like communications, journalism, media, academia and publishing. Then there are those who can’t or choose not to monetize their literary skills, whose breadwinning careers are unrelated. To give you just a few examples: Upamanyu Chatterjee is an IAS officer. Tanuj Solanki works in life insurance. Kaushik Barua works for the UN. Mainik Dhar manages a global food company. Amrita Narayanan is a psychologist. N.D. Rajkumar, by his own description, is a “coolie” on the Indian Railways. Poovalur Jayaraman, who is in his 80s, sells vadas and bondas from a pushcart. Kavery Nambisan is a doctor, as is Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar – who was suspended from his job as a civil surgeon last week because of a controversy about his writing.

As you can see, each person’s resources and financial security thus vary. At best, any literary income usually only supplements a base revenue from another profession. At worst, as in Dr. Shekhar’s case, even that is risked by the fact that there is very little respect for the arts and their makers in India.

Office?” people have exclaimed to me. “But I thought you were a poet!” It’s unfashionable to admit to having a “day job”, but I want to demystify the idea that we don’t need one. Unless one is extremely fortunate or already privileged, the pragmatic reality is that we do. Readers, this is what goes on behind the curtain. Aspiring authors, this is only some of what you’re in for…

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 17th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Book Review: Girls Are Coming Out Of The Woods, Blind Screens, The Sun And Her Flowers, Wild Embers

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Even when Tishani Doshi writes of the strange gratitude of “not being in the nicer hotel”, for the inspiration that comes “Because if it weren’t for this mouse-spiced/ air, this particular desire to be anywhere/ but here, how else to turn the howl/ into song?”, or when Ranjani Murali takes a recording-assisted tour of Alcatraz, the blood and body of their new books of poetry is quite literally just that. No matter what their other preoccupations or locations, both poets circle around and back to the subject of female fear. Doshi’s Girls Are Coming out of the Woods is underpinned by macabre newspaper headlines that cut close to home, manifesting in brutal crimes, and memories and dread that breathe down one’s own neck at all hours. In Murali’s debut, Blind Screens, she often employs as her canvas the cinematic screen, and in technicolour or off-camera, she situates several of her most politically loaded poems from a tangential gaze, always framing as her subjects women in relation to morality and society.

This is the most visceral of Doshi’s three books of poetry, reaching into the wounded places of the feminine psyche in ways that ache with how universally they are experienced. Some of the poems have direct triggers, cases that make the headlines, and the triggers open out onto traumas. Take this powerful description in the poem “Disco Biscuits”: “… most of us have known a man/ who arrived like Bill [Cosby] – sleek and proud as a July/ thunderstorm. How so many of us gave in to that sleekness/ because when you’re young you don’t know that your bones/ have been giving way the second you were born. So you give/ and your giving’s large and uncalculated. But then/ there’s the haunting.”

Throbbing through the collection are many hauntings, among them murdered women unknown or beloved. In “Everyone Loves A Dead Girl”, the poet says frankly, in the voice of such a ghost: “I would like to talk about what it means to suffocate on pillow/ feathers, to have your neck held like a cup of wine,/ all delicate/ and beloved, before it is crushed.” The poet does exactly this, pinning down images of death and decay unflinchingly. Even musings on aging relatives and crematoriums don’t come from nowhere: at the centre of them is something beyond idle morbidity. In “The Leather Of Love”, she writes: “And when we lie in bed and talk/ of the body’s failings, of the petulant dead, of / disenchantment and insufficient passion,/ we’re chewing through fears so thick our/ teeth are beginning to rust.” An army of girls – girls “with panties tied around their lips”, “girls “found naked in ditches and wells”, girls who didn’t survive or maybe did – emerges in the collection’s eponymous poem, dedicated posthumously to a murdered friend of the author’s. Rather than rouse, it chills. “Girls are coming/ out of the woods, clearing the ground/ to scatter their stories” she writes. You can almost hear her breathlessness in the last line – the poet passing the baton to the voices coming through her: “Girls are coming out of the woods./ They’re coming. They’re coming.”

In Blind Screens, Murali slips a cast of heroine characters, female actors and women in celluloid-stronghold cities like Bombay and Madras into poems in several registers, and just like all subtext cinematic and otherwise, they bind the collection together. Sometimes, we see them through the dehumanization of the male gaze, as in “Circa 1970’s Tamil Film Stalker’s Ghazal”, which escalates quickly from admiration to physical violence. Murali’s voice changes deftly; in the very next poem, “Mangaatha, or The Case of the Former Circus Artiste Now Distracted”, she takes on the persona of a performer as she flees a gang of men, all whom have handled her, literally, in less that professional ways. She holds tightly to her trapeze bars and swings away – but straight into the gaze of “the young policeman…. his mouth blackening/ at the sight of my pooling silk”.

This deft interplay between stage illusion, misogynist delusion and the literal difficulty of being female in a society trained to perceive itself as entitled to putting its hands on all it rests its eyes on comes together most forcefully in “Historical Movie Scene”, in which a male audience member heckles the narrator as she gets up to leave a theatre. Onscreen, a woman dances, “a glitter-filled belly button zooming into our faces”, while the man screams, “Ey, figure da, looking, going”. She stumbles and keeps walking, while “The same heckler calls out, “Wait, ma, watch/ where you’re going!” to me as the actress dances a stream of blood/ into an unfenced balcony, where a throng of snarling,/ cotton-stuffed, cross-eyed vultures claw into her mouth.”

This accomplished collection contains many variegations that fill and colour its pages with all the elaborate textures of Indian cinema: among them, “Beggars”, with a fortune telling parrot electrified with terror by a feline scent, which morphs beautifully through Murali’s phrasing into predators of another kind: “the director who recently/ celebrated the hundredth day jubilee,/ the local minister, the mayor, and even/ the child-star who likes to play with/ cheetah cubs in his spare time.”

In “Female Lead Waits For The Kurinji”, she juxtaposes two tropes: that of the flower that blooms once every twelve years, archetypal since ancient Tamil literature, and that of the modern heroine for whom a flower is but a metaphor. In the poem’s final lines, the narrator says to the kurinji, with or without self-consciousness: “Your own curse/ is not that of lack, but of being watched as you bloom.”

One imagines that the girl who becomes a woman – who “blooms” under watch – may often speak to herself in the rudimentary voice of Rupi Kaur’s poems. The Sun And Her Flowers is a book that surprises: nothing of Kaur’s work online suggests it will be anything but craftless, but placed in context, in page after page rather than in pithy cropped Instagram lines, a different effect accrues. Not quite beautiful or original, but together, the poems carry a clarity that is convincing, a soft voice that soothingly intones the familiar. A few pages in, one is reminded of a specific multi-genre work of art, discussed below, and understands that a slow-release impact is intended. What is not achieved in craft is compensated for in fine emotional control, the tenor in which Kaur writes about topics as personal as rape and the poignance of knowing how little time she has left with the mother who she has finally begun to understand. Some of Doshi’s girls, too, along with Murali’s women, must have had these thoughts.

But this is not to suggest ingenuity. In interviews, Kaur deliberately presents the image of being a non-reader. A recent article on her sardonically points out her interest in a book of Kafka’s – not for the contents but for the cover design. It’s an image that those who love to loathe all writers of her ilk, and the Instapoetry fad itself, enjoy. But it is patently false. As even just the first pages of The Sun And Her Flowers turn, there’s a clear debt to Beyonce’s Lemonade – which was scripted by the poet Warsan Shire. Again, in the sections that speak of immigrants and refugees, Kaur transparently aspires to resonate like Shire does. It would be remiss to not bring up Nayyirah Waheed’s allegation that Kaur plagiarised her work, an allegation layered with an undertone of anti-blackness. So the poem “legacy”, which goes “i stand/ on the sacrifices/ of a million women before me/ thinking/ what can i do/ to make this mountain taller/ so the women after me/ can see farther” begs the question: whose shoulders has Kaur chosen to stand on, unacknowledged? It is not enough that she labels two illustrations as homages to two Punjabi visual artists, Amrita Sher-Gil and Sobha Singh – more problematic is how she devises the image of herself as a literary pioneer in her lineage, without credit to the many pools from which she sourced her syntax.

But here, another poet similar in background – female, Punjabi, raised in the West, famous through social media – bears mention. Read side by side with Nikita Gill’s new book, Wild Embers: Poems of Rebellion, Fire and Beauty – which attempts to revise fairytales without ever moving past the Disney versions and is replete with confusion about its emotional and political core – The Sun And Its Flowers appears all the more sincere in its naïveté. It’s an uncanny contradiction: Kaur is clearly winning for she has studied how to be accessible, but the work somehow comes across as true. Which is why we can’t dismiss her on the basis of craft alone – not only is she better than her contemporaries who attempt depth, but the struggle and sentiment conveyed in her work is also the very pathos that moves stronger poets like Shire, Waheed, Murali and Doshi. Whatever their calibre, the girls are certainly coming out of the woods – bearing words, accusatory and revelatory.

An edited version appeared in OPEN Magazine.